When measured by the human traits that have marked worthy 12-meter skippers of the past and present, Pelle Petterson, the helmsman and designer of the Swedish challenger Sverige, looks like a certain winner in his quest for the America's Cup this summer. Petterson is by nature as meticulous and precise as Bill Cox and Gerry Driscoll. He has some of the innovative genius of Lowell North and some of the broader talent that made Bus Mosbacher and Bill Ficker almost unbeatable. Like Jim Hardy, Petterson is most affable: like Bob Bavier and Ted Hood, he is well-contained and unflappable. To stretch the comparison to the limit, when Petterson is discussing his own shortcomings, he is often as outspoken (though rarely as long-spoken) as Ted Turner, the Atlanta fireball who has made self-immolation a way of life.
Despite such endowments, when the realities of the moment are considered, Petterson's chances of winning the America's Cup shrink considerably. His credentials are good, but his timing is godawful. He is entering the fray as a novice at a time when the arena is already crowded with talented and hungry old hands. Though it is sport's most lopsided event, the America's Cup consumes many able and devoted men—and this summer will set a record. Disregarding the failure of all challengers in the past 107 years, four boats representing three different foreign countries will be seeking victory, and between now and late summer there will be four very good U.S. craft fighting for the honor of defending the queer old prize.
Having tried to take the cup four times with four different boats, the Australians should be ready to pack it in, but instead they will have two challengers in Newport. Although the French lost to the Australians in the elimination series in 1970 and 1974 in a wood hull called
, they will be back with a new wood-skinned, aluminum-framed boat, France II.
Some years ago Naval Architect Olin Stephens, whose creations have defended the cup in five of the six challenges of the modern, 12-meter era, noted that any designer of a 12-meter boat usually profits from his earlier attempts provided he does not stub his toe taking too bold a step forward. Therein lies much of the advantage that the Australians and French will have over the Swedish newcomers. Their designers have been gnawed by the rats of hindsight and are wiser for it. At present, the French are reluctant to release any meaningful data on their new hull, which was designed by Andre Mauric, whose good original hull,
, because of chaotic management never had a chance to show her worth.
The least promising of Australia's challengers is Gretel II, the old wood boat that was not expected to beat France in 1970 but took four straight and went on to make the best showing of any foreigner against an American 12-meter. Her designer, Alan Payne, does not expect that she has the stability to do well in heavy weather against the newer, lighter aluminum hulls, but he has modified her above and below water in a dozen minor ways to improve her in light air. Most notably her measured length has been reduced to allow more sail area and, although she was never a bobber, her bow has been fined to cope with the messy water created by the spectator fleet.
By virtue of several radical departures—an extreme overall length and a lumpy forefoot, to cite two—Southern Cross, the hull produced for the 1974 challenge by Australia's other designer, Bob Miller, was supposedly unbeatable running and reaching and at least competitive on weather legs. She turned out to be barely competitive running and reaching and easy to beat to weather. Wiser now, Miller has produced a new hull, as yet unnamed, that is comparatively orthodox. Her keel s long and slender, harking back 10 years; her forefoot is unkinked.
If Pelle Petterson and his Sverige (pronounced Svair-ee-yeh and meaning Sweden) get by the Australians and French, what will be their chances against a Yankee defender? Because of the infrequent competition and the variables involved in every quest, the America's Cup is not a game that attracts oddsmakers. However, based on the past performances of two old U.S. hulls that are still active and the logical potential of two new ones, the Swedes' chances seem truly dim. Assuming that the new Enterprise designed by Olin Stephens is a dud—a farfetched presumption, indeed—and assuming that the new Independence by Ted Hood, the multifaceted Marblehead man, is no better, on the active reserve list the U.S. has Courageous, the Stephens boat that won handily last time out. Backing up these three is Intrepid, Stephens' old wood boat that defended the cup in 1967 and 1970 and almost beat Courageous for the honor three years ago. Intrepid and Courageous are already bolstering the defense effort by serving as trial horses for Enterprise and Independence. When you have that sort of bench to scrimmage against, you surely are sitting pretty.
Petterson has an easy, boyish way and looks much younger than his 44 years, but he is not naive. He has never considered the America's Cup a challenge that one undertakes armed with pebbles and a sling. He started early marshaling assistance from Volvo, M�lnlycke, SKF, Boliden, International F�rg and some 50 other Swedish corporations known for their technical achievements. This winter, reviewing his chances at a time when things were not going as well as they might, Petterson said, "The America's Cup is one of the greater things you can try for in yachting. The enthusiasm you get watching the boats and imagining yourself in one of them attracts you to it, but you have to remember that you can easily make a fool of yourself. I think the boats will be relatively even in performance. I don't think we lack anything as far as rigging and such refinements are concerned. I think we are about level with the Australians and French in our sails, but the Americans will have a real edge in that department, with Ted Hood and Lowell North competing. I have the greatest respect for that advantage, and we will have to keep working to overcome it."
If Petterson and his Sverige team should lift the cup, two unrelated circumstances will be largely responsible: 1) the Great Depression of the '30s and 2) the popularity of the Star boat, the old hard-chined class that evolved on Long Island Sound shortly after the landing of Columbus and has persisted around the world despite the incursion of slicker designs. If it had not been for the Depression, Petterson might have been Yankee born, raised in the Midwest and working now for Evinrude, Harley-Davidson or General Motors. Shocking as it may seem to die-hard Corinthians, for much of his life Petterson, the sailor, has enjoyed an equal reputation among powerboaters and, still worse, the motor-car crowd. Before he had done any serious sailing even in a junior class, he was winning big in soapbox derbies in and about G�teborg where his family was living. The external design of Volvo outboards and the Volvo Penta outdrive come from his drawing board. Before he began producing his Maxi line of sailboats for family cruising and casual racing, he had created several powerboats and the Volvo P 1800 quasi-sports car that sold well in this country in the '60s.
Petterson is a sailor by choice, a stinkpot and stinkmobile designer by provocation. In the 1920s his father Helmer raced an American brand of motorcycle called Excelsior and, restless for greater challenge, left Sweden to work in Chicago for the company that made his machines. By the time he reached these shores, the attrition of Excelsior employees on dirt tracks had been so great that he was forbidden to race. Instead, the elder Petterson worked his way up to head of the racing division. As such, he maintained and beefed up not only the cycles used on tracks and in hill climbs by great drivers like Joe Petrali but also those ridden by the Chicago cops against the forces of Bugs Moran and Al Capone. The Excelsiors did fine in hot competition, but the stock Harleys and Indian cycles sold better and survived the Depression. The scarcity of jobs drove Helmer Petterson back to Sweden about a year before Pelle was born.